“Meditation, Judaism, and Self-Mastery”
Let’s reclaim our spiritual heritage!
We will continue our study of the Jewish idea of “enlightenment,” with a focus on the soul, using the teachings of Biblical scholar Ethan Dor Shav, completing his essay with sections VII and VIII.
We will also discuss how to understand distractions, to improve your meditative practice.
Jewish meditation techniques we have covered so far:
Amidah: achieving consciousness of God through prayer.
Hitbodedut: becoming mindful through internal and external isolation.
Ruach Hakodesh (Enlightenment:) transcending the physical, through work on yourself.
Unification: experiencing Oneness with God by reciting the Shema.
The Traditions: Enlightenment
Rabbi Kaplan – “Meditation and the Bible”
Rabbi Kaplan – “Meditation and the Bible,” p 18
In the Bible, we find that three words are usually used to refer to the soul, these being Nefesh, Ruach, and Neshama. According to the Kabbalists, these represent the three most important levels of the soul.
These are the steps leading to Ruach Hakodesh outlined in the Talmud: Study; Carefulness; Diligence; Cleanliness; Abstention; Purity; Piety; Humility; Fear of Sin; Holiness (p 20)
Ethan Dor Shav: “Soul on Fire: A Theory of Biblical Man”
Ethan Dor-Shav was an Associate Fellow at the Shalem Center. His last essay in Azure was “Ecclesiastes, Fleeting and Timeless” (Azure 18, Autumn 2004). The author dedicates the essay to the memory of his grandfather, Rabbi Elisha Kohn.
Ethan Dor-Shav studied philosophy of science at Tel-Aviv University and was an associate fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. He writes about biblical philosophy.
In what follows, I intend to show that the original Hebrew terminology was both distinct and consistent, and that the very absence of visible souls in the Hebrew Bible points to a more commanding alternative conception of man’s inner being. I also intend to show that while the Bible does not up- hold the soul-body dichotomy—which most critics have considered prerequisite to a belief in the persistence of the soul after death—it does demonstrate the presence of a four-element structure of both matter and spirit that supports a belief in life eternal. This structure has been either overlooked or confused with Aristotle’s schema to the point that the spiritual implications of the biblical usage have gone undiscovered.
Thus, scholars searching the Hebrew Bible for signs of an interest in the afterlife have been looking through the wrong intellectual lenses, and have therefore missed the Hebrew Bible’s profound teaching concerning man’s constitution and destiny. To gain access to this metaphysical worldview of the ancient Israelite Sages we must stop looking for a landscape of Heaven under the light of our preconceived expectations. In ancient Israelite philosophy, the netherworld is to be understood, not imagined; the divine soul is to be realized, not seen.
The first step in parsing the Hebrew Bible’s idea of man is to clarify the text’s view of the cosmos. Any notion of souls “in Heaven” al ready invokes this link. In antiquity, the picture of the cosmos defined the framework of reality. It stretched from the realm of the gods to that of the demons, and its governing order commanded all natural law in the phenomenological world. For the Hebrew Bible, the cosmic picture is defined by a four-element hierarchical construct. Surprising to those familiar with the model solely from Greek thought, a version of the ancient theory of the four elements—Earth, Water, Wind, and Fire—debuted in the ancient Israelite kingdom before Aristotle or, probably, Empedocles. Most easily, the four primal elements can be discerned in successive verses in the open ing chapter of Ecclesiastes (this reference will soon help illuminate earlier biblical sources):
Here, then, are the biblical spheres of the cosmos: Fire, as heaven, is on top; then a circling wind; below it the green earth; and underneath the primal waters of the abyss, called tehom.
This explains the body-plant analogy employed throughout the Hebrew Bible. Particularly, the same word, zera, denotes both the seed of plants and the seed of man. Likewise, the word for fruit, pri, also describes children—“fruit of the loin”—and at least a half-dozen other terms employ this parallel usage. Indeed, plant imagery is frequently employed to describe human physical existence, and continuity. Isaiah: “There shall come forth a shoot from the trunk of Yishai.” Elsewhere in Isaiah: “Your bones shall flower like grass.” Ezekiel: “I made you thrive like a plant in the field.” Psalms: “The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree.”47 More than merely poetic metaphors, these analogies point toward the core of the biblical worldview.
The body, therefore, is far more than a clay vessel. Man, in some sense, is first of all a plant. Itself growing, then wilting with age and eventually re- turning to the earth (only to fertilize new growth), the material body marks our being as an organism. On this level of existence, each and every one of us is a seed of Earth, like the flowers and the trees. And the elemental Earth principle, as a sphere of generation and degeneration, explains the puzzling link within the first verse of Ecclesiastes with which we opened: “A generation goes, and a generation comes,” because “the Earth stands forever.” Our growing body, created of Earth, is our share in this basic, organic cycle of reality.
The second level of our being is that of nefesh, the part of us related to water. Water itself, of course, stands for life. This is why, in the Bible, flowing waters are considered “alive”—mayim hayim, and why Ecclesiastes chose running streams to signify the element. That nefesh, too, stands for life (or the flowing “life force”) is evident in over sixty biblical references. In ancient Israelite thought, “life” means animation, the capacity for independent movement, and is therefore a term reserved for animals…
…Nefesh, then, is not a uniquely human soul, as some translations imply, but one that humans share with animals from insects to primates. Fitting its appropriate Latin translation, anima, the term captures the layer of creation as defined on its fifth day: “God said, Let the Water bring forth abundantly—nefesh creatures that have life, and God created every crawling nefesh that has life.” That all animals are possessed of a nefesh too we also learn from Leviticus: “He that kills a human nefesh shall surely be put to death. And he that kills a beast nefesh shall repay it.” The Bible tells us the relation of nefesh not only to animal life, but also to life’s opposite. Nefesh is the only term used in reference to death. While the body may wither, it is the nefesh itself that dies, as Samson declares, “Let my nefesh die with the Philistines.” When the body stills, life runs out.
How do we know that nefesh is related to water? First, as mentioned, both connote life. In addition, unlike the other two biblical soul-terms, nefesh is always described as liquid: “He poured out his nefesh to death”…
In summary, the animation of nefesh defines a separate level or reality, above and beyond the growth of earthbound flora. Together with the ability to carry ourselves from place to place, it represents sensation, cognitive processes, and instinctive drives. For the Bible, rivers are the veins and arteries of the earth, just as our own blood flows in the veins and arteries of our bodies. As Water is the natural force of animation that impels all life, so our nefesh, tied to water, is our personal share in animation and life.
The third level of what makes us human is ruah—literally Wind, which emanates from an intermediary realm between Heaven and Earth. Like nefesh, ruah is not unique to humans. In Psalm 104, the statement “You take away their ruah, they die” refers to “living things both small and great.” Ecclesiastes declares: “They have all one ruah; so that man has no pre-eminence above the beast.” In the story of the flood, the animals enter the ark “two by two, of all flesh in which is a ruah.” Ruah is, however, restricted to animals that breathe with lungs—the only ones endangered by the flood.
What separates breathing and non-breathing animals on such a fundamental level? The answer lies in the notion of “social self.” Ruah, translated as spirit, is a subject not for divinity school, but for a department of social sciences, for ruah accounts for all social relationships and inter-subjective dealings.
In addition to the cosmic fire of neshama’s heavenly origin, “light” is used innumerable times to signify wisdom and truth—as functions of our innate divine capacity. Indeed, in ancient Israelite metaphysics, the fire of supreme divination and the light of Godly knowledge both infuse the fire-nature of heaven. This is, on the deepest level, the “fire” of God’s word: out of the midst of fire God speaks to Moses in the bush, and out of the midst of fire God delivers his commandments at Sinai. According to the Talmud: “The testament God gave Moses is rooted in white fire, engraved from black fire; it is fire, mingled with fire, hewn with fire, given with fire; as it says, ‘From his right—a fire-law to his people.’” Likewise, “Behold, I will turn my words in your mouth into fire.” God’s everlasting “word,” from which He created the world, is thus embossed in the brilliant fire-realm—a world untouched by time—as the Psalmist reports: “The heavens tell the magnitude of God… and their words reach to the end of the world,” and elsewhere, “For ever, O Lord, your word is fixed in Heaven”; fire fixed in fire.
At the deepest level, the core of the word neshama is, I suggest, the root word shem (name), signifying the ability to name (i.e. to categorize) that defines man’s capacity for abstract thought, and Adam’s first act after he was ensouled. In fact, in Arabic, s-m-w serves as the root of the word “heaven” (samaa) and also means “to name.” The heavenly speaking-soul is there fore the source of our creative ability, moral responsibility, and control over the world. If ruah captures the “self” that we are allotted by God, then neshama is the identity that we give to ourselves, by utilizing our capacity for thought. As we go through our ephemeral life, this neshama becomes enlightened by our learning of God. It is the nature of fire to illuminate, but just as importantly it is the cosmic nature of fire to rise. Therefore, when we die, our own neshama—the soul of fire—rises up to heaven.
Ultimately man is the crown of creation because only man incorporates each of the four elements in his being. In the Bible, therefore, every human being mirrors God’s cosmos at large. Being a microcosm, “the destruction of any person’s life is tantamount to destroying a whole world and the preservation of a single life is tantamount to preserving a whole world.”
What does it mean to become a star? Ultimately, neshama designates man’s personal potential, his language faculty. Its root word, however, the concept of a name (shem), expresses the realization of potential, and the accomplishment achieved through that capacity. In other words, the neshama is the means by which we create our own name. This name – the distilled, essential idea of who we are—designates an eternal reality within the fire sphere of heaven.
Nonetheless, the Bible transcends the limits of antiquated perceptions. It teaches how to distinguish within each one of us the material, the dynamic, the relational, and the ideal, and these distinctions add up to a worldview with far-reaching philosophical consequence. In doing so it allows the ideal “I” to shed not only the physical body and mortal life, but also the constituent of social relativity: In the kingdom of light we transcend all characteristics of gender, status, tongue or nationality. In turn, the other three components of our being attain their own continuity: the body in progeny, the nefesh in universal life energy, and the ruah in the collective. Modern cosmology, therefore, does not debase the Israelite four-tier paradigm any more than dissecting a heart obliterates the idea of love.
Only when we appreciate that the essence of man’s neshama lies precisely in the idea of an eternal “name” can the death of our beloved—or rather his or her posthumous existence—contribute to the completion of God’s name. What makes the Kadish so poignant is that a man’s name is carved out of the divine throne, and when it itself reaches a state of fulfillment it reunites with its source, the great name of God. By doing so, it adds a unique spark towards the latter’s ultimate completeness. Man’s acquired name, then, completes God’s name. In praying for the completion and enlargement of God’s name, the mourner relates the name of the deceased—the realized essence of his or her neshama—to the divine, as a purified identity. In Jewish philosophy, this is true, and eternal, salvation.